Just Do It

02/24/2014 03:09 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2014

Okay, I know that's a cliche. Worse, perhaps, it's a cliche born of a sneaker commercial. But how often do you hear some other person -- or yourself! -- say something like this: "I'll try to make it by eight o'clock," or "I'm trying to lose some weight," or "trying to write a novel/finish a painting/make a fresh start"...? The truth is, the longer you keep trying to feed the dog, the sooner the poor creature starves. Trying, in other words, doesn't hack it. It doesn't get the job done. You say it because it gives you the wiggle room you need to let yourself off the hook. To actually do it -- whatever "it" happens to be -- requires intention, commitment, follow-through, completion.

This is not quite the idea behind Trying Not to Try: The Ancient Chinese Art and Modern Science of Spontaneity, by Edward Slingerland. But it's related. Slingerland sets out to explore the thinking of four different ancient Chinese philosophers on the concept of wu-wei (pronounced "ooo-way" and translated roughly as "no trying" or "no doing") and de ("duh," "virtue," "charismatic power"), the quality possessed by those who master wu-wei; and to illuminate these concepts in the light of newly emerging modern scientific concepts of spontaneity. He begins by examining the perplexing -- and by its nature irresolvable -- paradox of wu-wei: between the spontaneity that defines it and the hard work and effort required to attain it. It's a tool that's indispensable to any creative person (we talk about "being in flow"), but one that is acquired only by what it takes to get to Carnegie Hall: "practice, practice, practice."

With sometimes jaunty and refreshing good humor, a good number of insights drawn from personal experience and, given the complexity of the philosophical concepts he explores, mercifully readable prose, Slingerland walks us through four phases of early Chinese thought: Confucianism, which preaches "carving and polishing"--the long, painstaking work of cultivating manners (for the gentleman) or craft (for the artist), until perfection can be achieved with spontaneous ease; the Daoism of Laozi (Lao-Tzu), favoring the "uncarved block" or, as the author puts it in a succinct appendix summary, "stop trying immediately, go home"; Mencian Confucianism, "try, but don't force it"; and the Daoism of Zuangzi, "try to forget all about trying or not trying, just go with the flow."

Interspersed with the insights gained by the empirical work of modern neuroscientists, brain researchers and social scientists, Slingerland points, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the durability of the paradox he starts out with. Our understanding and action in the world is a delicate and ever-shifting balance between the "hot cognition" that draws upon the forces of the unconscious mind, the body we inhabit, and the inheritance of the blood that courses through our veins; and the "cold cognition" that proceeds from rational thought, analysis, and so on.

Those of us who till the creative fields know something about the paradox of wu-wei. We have delighted in the ecstatic experience of being in flow, when everything comes naturally, without stopping for thought or reflection, and comes just right; and when, indeed, stopping for thought or reflection puts an end to flow -- and how frustrating that is! We know that flow reliably refuses to come along when we ask it to, no matter how hard we "try" to get there. But we know from experience, too, that flow in itself is rarely enough: it must flow forth from a resource of knowledge of the world out-there, from a deep well of emotional experience, and from a practiced understanding of the medium in which we are engaged.

The quality of de shines through the work we do. It's hard to define, but easy to recognize (in wu-wei moments) by its absence. Call it integrity, authenticity. We may not be able to put a finger on it, but something tells us when it's there: implicitly, instinctively, we trust the voice we're hearing or the vision we're invited to share. It pulls us in. And, as in life, when confronted with a person we have never met before, something tells us when it's missing. Interestingly, as Slingerland's book tells us, there is currently a lot of ("cold cognition") research into precisely this ("hot cognition") phenomenon. But as the author is at pains to point out, if you try to get de, it will probably elude you. It's something you can only get by -- you guessed it -- "trying not to try."